Ten riders to watch during the course of the year. Some are picked as rising talents, others will be very familiar but are still interesting to watch and some. As ever the hard pick is picking ten riders from a World Tour peloton of over 500 and the same exercise every lunchtime this month could see all sorts picked but here’s your ten…
Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quickstep) is the first pick. Among the big names in the sport there’s the paradox where Evenepoel is both a confirmed star and and yet unknown proposition. Call them the galaticos, the Musketeers, the Big Five, there is a caste of top riders at the top who often win and yet with Evenepoel there’s still a sense of unexplored frontiers, a Vuelta win but a Vuelta collapse too and the sense we don’t know quite where his limits are, he can be invincible but also mercurial. But perhaps 2024 isn’t the season to define them either, his team, well they don’t look the strongest for the Tour and this year’s Tour route is very big on longer climbs and maybe his power curve isn’t suited. Also he finished last year questioning the sacrifices of long altitude training camps, but he could be refreshed now. Expect more moments of genius but also the risk of implosion which is what makes things exciting.
Ineos are an interesting team as they’re not what they used to be, and many riders left and even the manager ended up leaving. Filippo Ganna is worth watching in an Olympic year and because he’s branching out from being a time trial specialist, see his sprinting in the Vuelta last year but is this because he’s no longer invincible against the clock. The team has a stable of interesting riders, from Magnus Sheffield to Thyman Arensman, and Egan Bernal is of interest to see if he can improve. Anyway the pick is Tom Pidcock because he’s still a blank canvas in many ways. He was a “project” at the Tour de France last year where he aimed for a GC finish rather than a spectacular stage win and now the aim is more of the same. But it feels like a rider who can be a circus entertainer who wows the crowds is being molded, flattened even into something else. So can he find the fun and the flair that he’s show before and help deliver the results Ineos need? Arguably Carlos Rodriguez might give Pidcock more space, the Spaniard will return to the Tour de France with expectations, a burden shared.
Valentin Madouas is one of the leaders of Groupama-FDJ but can he land leading results? Lenny Martinez and Romain Grégoire continue their rise while David Gaudu can be world class but wasn’t a banker last season. Madouas was strong in 2023, he won the French championships last summer with a very strong ride, almost the last rider standing. But that’s his challenge, make a race hard enough and he might be the best French rider left but add competitors from other nations and how to win? Here’s the tantalising part though, he won the Bretagne Classic so it can be done and while Tom Pidcock stole the show in the Strade Bianche, Madouas was second. In 2022 he helped David Gaudu finish fourth in the Tour while finishing 11th overall, he’s a tractor with a turbo, not easy to tip to win races but should place beaucoup and the harder the conditions the better his chances. Revisit the picture above from the Strade Bianche, can he find a way to make the top step of the podium in these kind of races, or is being a French version of Tiesj Benoot who can range from the Paterberg to the Pyrenees but often settles for a lieutenant helper role pretty good anyway?
Fabio Jakobsen (DSM Firmenich-PostNL) might be the best sprinter in the world, even if Jasper Philipsen and his fans would be the first to say otherwise. And they’d have a good point, Philipsen is more versatile but for straight speed in a dragster finish it’s probably Jakobsen: but that’s a question to settle during 2024, and others will want their say too. Jakobsen has changed teams after six seasons. It’s also the story of the team which still has climbing talent in Romain Bardet, Oscar Onley and Max Poole and has recruited Warren Barguil but they’ve unloaded their other sprinters like Alberto Dainese and Sam Welsford so the big focus is on Jakobsen. If you think Mark Cavendish is a project for Astana, Jakobsen is this and more, albeit without the “last dance” narrative. Here it’s not can he win once, but how often he can win throughout the year including delivering in July. Plus the team are worth worth keeping an eye on, a story has been losing riders but signing Jakobsen might just be the start as new sponsors like PostNL swell the coffers.
Felix Gall (Decathlon-Ag2r La Mondiale) was one of the revelations of 2023. Originally slated to ride the Giro, he proved so good in the Tour of the Alps that he was pulled at the last moment from the Giro and switched to Ag2r’s Tour program. A win in the Tour de Suisse and then the Col de la Loze stage of the Tour de France. An elegant rider with a dainty high cadence – and apparently an astonishing Vo2 Max – the tricky part is going to be repeating this in 2024 but it’s not like he sneaked away for his Tour stage win, it was the last day in the Alps and he attacked on the Col de la Loze to go solo, this was a climber’s world championships. Simply put he was one of the best climbers in 2023 as the photo from the Vosges suggests. His team are an interesting prospect for 2024 where we’ll see if imports like Sam Bennett can find winning ways again and if Victor Lafay can be more consistent and ruthless – he could win the Flèche Wallonne if dropped into the perfect position but easier typed than done of course – but here Gall can stake his claim to some form of team leadership. Tied to Decathlon until 2025, he’ll might find he’s on the market very soon too.
Tao Geoghegan Hart (Lidl-Trek) was once tipped as a neo-pro to watch here but with the only reservation that he seemed so polished could he improve further. Since then he’s delivered a Giro win, and more, and seems even more thoughtful in interviews too. We could have been viewing him as the two-time Giro winner signed by Lidl-Trek as part of their expansive plans but fate intervened last May and now there’s a rehab narrative, any results will be first viewed in this light before projections are made to the future but overcome this and he’s an interesting rider, a complete rider who can climb, time trial and packs a handy sprint from a small group. His big goal is the Tour de France and that’s a blank canvas to paint but there’s more before and after.
Staying at Lidl-Trek brings us to Jonathan Milan. The hulking rider won gold in the Tokyo Olympics on the track and has improved on the road, notably winning a Giro stage and taking the ciclamino points jersey. But is he a sprinter? Yes but this label can apply to many types of rider and Milan is at the opposite end of the scale to, say, Bryan Coquard. He is 1m93cm and 84kg and all brute force on the bike, he can pour out the watts and in this sense is reminiscent of Marcel Kittel who didn’t start out as a sprinter either. Lidl-Trek have a sprinter for dragster finishes and he could also prove to be a very useful battering ram for Mads Pedersen but we’ll see if Milan can refine his sprinting technique and with this land more wins.
Luke Plapp (Jayco) made the list before he winning the double in the Australian championships. He was signed in a hurry by Ineos but ended up leaving a year before his contract was up in order to join Jayco where he’ll be easy to spot given he’ll be in the green and gold again. He’s just turned 23 and it’ll be interesting to see what type of rider he becomes. The incentives pull towards becoming a stage race contender and there are opportunities here, he’s excellent in time trials and can climb with the best, at least on shorter climbs as he’s a reported 70kg rather than 65kg and here he gives his team opportunities alongside Simon Yates and Eddie Dunbar. He’ll also have to work on leadership, Yates is the team’s senior star but Plapp will be expected to deliver soon too. Look to see what he can do in week-long stage races.
Oier Lazkano (Movistar) is a niche pick but the Basque had a great season in 2023. He became the Spanish champion and in the spring finished second in the Dwars Door Vlaanderen, getting the annual “surprise Spaniard” award from the Flemish media. But flip these around and it sounds better as the bulky Spaniard was strong in Flanders and then won a hilly edition of the Spanish championships, even keeping Juan Ayuso at bay and he had more results too. This power and range makes him a useful domestique but it’ll be interesting to see where he gets his opportunities. Also with the Spanish champion’s jersey on his back things won’t be so easy, if he goes up the road it’s not “a Movistar” but Lazkano.
Maxim Van Gils (Lotto-Dstny) is a pick outside of the World Tour. The system is becoming increasingly closed, the 18 teams inside get automatic invites but a handful of teams outside are de facto World Tour teams, the same in all but label. Lotto-Dsnty among them and of course they’re De Lie-Destiny in many ways and the “Bull” is a fascinating rider who was a neo-pro to watch here before. Van Gils though gives the team more range, a punchy climber who is in his fourth season in the World Tour and won the Saudi Tour last year but can he land somethingn bigger in Europe? Don’t expect results up front… because he’s suspended until mid-February after bashing a rider in the Japan Cup criterium but his results are on an upward curve and 2024 could be a breakthrough. But one challenge is finding chances for the rider from Brasschaat north of Antwerp, the team have said no thanks to invites for the Giro and Basque Country already, just the terrain that should suit Van Gils but he’ll find more.
As ever the problem is picking just ten riders, there are over 500 riders the World Tour although there will be a separate piece for the neo-pros. It means hundreds of stories to follow and more to be made in the season. You can easily find ten riders with interesting stories on one team. Take UAE, where can all their riders get opportunities, the team is like an art museum that has to keep some masterpieces in storage because it struggles for gallery space, think Jay Vine, Brandon McNulty and Pavel Sivakov among others and Marc Hirschi’s comeback last season could continue. Mark Cavendish an interesting story but it’s very specific: a win in July when Astana also need new signings to deliver otherwise they’re relegated. Last year’s lead pick Richard Carapaz is interesting for all the same reasons… and so on.
Outside the World Tour it’d be easy to pick 20 names to follow Van Gils, think Jambaljamts Sainbayar at Burgos-BH, it’s novel to see a Mongolian sports export outside of, say, sumo or boxing, but the Spanish team have made some clever signings all round and it’d be nice if they pay off. It’s going to be hard to pick eight riders for the Giro at Tudor but Michael Storer and Marco Brenner at Tudor are interesting signings and key to the team overtaking rivals in the second tier. Likewise at Uno-X the additions of Andreas Leknessund and Magnus Cort are crucial, signing them and finding the budget wasn’t easy but the even harder part will be getting results. Mathieu Burgaudeau at Total Energies really should be picked by a World Tour team but would he get as much freedom to attack?
Any riders you will be watching, and if so why?